REVIEW: Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Two unlikely friends—Federico, in sixteenth-century Rome, and Bee, in present-day New Jersey—are linked through an amiable cat, Leonardo Da Vinci’s mysterious wardrobe, and an eerily perfect sketch of Bee. Newbery Honor author Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Da Vinci’s Cat is a thrilling, time-slip fantasy about rewriting history to save the present. This inventive novel will engross anyone who loved When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time.
Federico doesn’t mind being a political hostage in the Pope’s palace, especially now that he has a cat as a friend. But he must admit that a kitten walking into a wardrobe and returning full-grown a moment later is quite odd. Even stranger is Herbert, apparently an art collector from the future, who emerges from the wardrobe the next night. Herbert barters with Federico to get a sketch signed by the famous painter Raphael, but his plans take a dangerous turn when he hurries back to his era, desperate to save a dying girl.
Bee never wanted to move to New Jersey. When a neighbor shows Bee a sketch that perfectly resembles her, Bee, freaked out, solidifies her resolve to keep to herself. But then she meets a friendly cat and discovers a mysterious cabinet in her neighbor’s attic—a cabinet that leads her to Renaissance Rome. Bee, who has learned about Raphael and Michelangelo in school, never expected she’d get to meet them and see them paint their masterpieces.
This compelling time-slip adventure by Newbery Honor author Catherine Gilbert Murdock is full of action, mystery, history, art, and friendship—and features one unforgettable cat.
Includes black-and-white spot art throughout of Da Vinci’s cat by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky, as well as an author’s note about the art, artists, and history that inspired the novel .
Dear Ms. Murdock,
What a charming middle grade novel that weaves together art, history, friendship, and a cat. Yes, I came for the cat but I ended up enjoying as strong willed Bea, sometimes haughty Fred, temperamental Michaelangel, smooth talking Raphael, and elegant Juno come together to change, or is that rechange, history.
Despite the title, Leonardo Da Vinci is not to be seen but I’d bet that many children this book is written for will recognize at least one of the other two artists who do figure prominently in it. Using an anecdote and a few historical figures as inspiration, the book first takes us back to 1511 Rome when eleven year old Sir Frederico is being held as a “guest” to guarantee the good behavior and loyalty of his father, the Duke of Mantua. Frederico knows his place and his rank and has a wonderful sense of fashion but doesn’t know what to make of a pretty kitten who emerges one night from a wardrobe sized box. He does know how to properly address and adore her though –
“Mrow.” The kitten reached out a paw to tap his nose, as soft as a kiss, and wiggled to be free.
“Certainly, my lady. I would not detain you.” Federico set her down, and she bounced across the floor, rolling like a jester—a far better jester than the one at the banquet! He laughed, clapping. He could spend the rest of his life watching this.
Abruptly she stopped to lick a paw as if to say Me, tumble? Never!
She spotted a bit of feather and crouched, creeping toward it. She sprang—
“Captured!” exclaimed Federico. “Oh, you are too clever.”
She scrambled down the corridor with the determination of a tiny racehorse and careened back, bouncing off his ankles. “Mrow,” she boasted, her whole body purring.
“A proper sprinter you are.” Federico petted her. “Though we need to work on your turns.”
Things get weird when later a strangely dressed man who says he is from the future and who speaks Italian badly steps out of it. Frederico and the man, “Herbert,” strike a bargain in which Frederico will help Herbert get sketches by Raphael or Michaelangelo in exchange for the wonderful food that Herbert brings with him – chocolate with peanuts! It is Frederico’s need for friendship and the potential loss of Juno that drives him to agree to work with the rude person who shows up next.
Bea and her mothers are going to housesit in New Jersey when circumstances bring Bea to the attention of a crazy old lady next door who insists that she’s been waiting to meet Bea for years and that the sketch hung in her house is of Bea and was drawn by Raphael. Before Bea realizes, she’s involved in what she thinks is Narnia come to life even if the young boy she meets is rather rude. He’s her chance to help “make things right.” But what if, between the two of them, things go terribly wrong and not only priceless art but lives are at stake?
The thought of seeing the Pope’s palace at this time and befriending and watching the geniuses who are painting images that will become world renowned tickles my fancy. I mean, who would turn that down? Through the character of Frederico, or “Fred” as Bea calls him, we get a chance to see what the daily life of a (granted, high ranking) young boy would have been. Fred is also desperate for a friend, someone in whom he can confide. Life is cushy but he misses his sisters, his mother, and his home.
Then Bea shows up and initially Fred doesn’t know what to do with her. She also speaks Italian strangely, knows little of correct behavior, wears bizarre clothes and worst of all, has sent Juno off through the cabinet in order to compel him to help her. In order to get Bea through the palace, Fred has to instruct her (and us) in how to act, what to wear, and what not to say.
He picked up a small silver tray. “Carry this.” He held it up on two hands, to demonstrate.
“Because you are my servant, naturally.” He donned his blue cap edged with pearls. “Thus you walk behind me, carrying an item of value.” He checked himself in the mirror, tying on his sky-blue cloak with cream silk lining and ermine trim. Was he perfect? Yes.
Bee held up the tray as if it were made out of glass, or poison. Federico sighed to himself. Tossing back his cloak, he opened the door to let them both out.
Yet the two also eventually strike up a friendship as they teach each other things about their lives. There are cute bits – or cute to me – wherein Bea learns why people say “dial” when they phone someone and “hang up” when the call is over. And imagine having to laboriously thumb through thick books for information instead of just checking the internet.
It’s helpful to the story and moves things along to have Bea’s mothers be involved in the art world and for one to be Italian explaining Bea’s knowledge of the subject as well as how she speaks Italian. Despite notes that Herbert left, the two discover that their actions just might change history enough for the world to lose the glory of the Sistine chapel and perhaps eliminate what brought Bea’s mothers together and thus Bea herself.
The way they struggle to right what they’ve upended leads to more adventures – even if some of them sound a little unlikely to have worked. Discovering little tidbits of information – I’ll pass on eating my spaghetti with cinnamon and sugar and who knew canaries used to be so expensive – was cool. Watching Fred and Bea work out what to do will be fun for middle grade aged readers but I wish there had been more Juno. B
This sounds charming, @jayne. As someone who has read a number of time travel books, I appreciate the fact that the issue of speaking a foreign language is addressed rather than ignored.
@Kareni: Oh, absolutely. I need these little details to be included in order for me to mentally sink into this world that the author is trying to create.